There are many confident riders who have the knack of identifying the risks on the roads, and who have developed good riding practices to manage the uncertainty that shadows every vulnerable road user. But are riders totally responsible for their welfare, or do other road users, and roads management authorities, also have an obligation get us home each day? Simon Vincett investigates.
Most people think that when they ride on the road the greatest danger is behind them—that they could be rear-ended. However, the statistics tell a different story: there’s more risk ahead and to the side, and intersections are where most collisions occur. So what are the most common collisions for bike riders?
Victoria has high bicycle usage relative to most of Australia and the longest history of all the states and territories of collecting and classifying crash statistics. So Victorian crash stats, as they are known, provide a good guide for bike riders.
The graph here shows the 30 most common types of crashes, of all degrees of severity, involving bike riders in Victoria in the ten years from 2002 to 2012. The figures also show the proportion each crash type represents within the total of all crash types.
The names of all the types do not clearly explain how the crash occurred, so a close look at the top 11 with their official diagrams is the best way to devise strategies to best deal with the risk. These top 11 accounted for 77% of bike rider crashes in Victoria in the ten years of 2002 to 2012.
Intersections—where roads users cross paths and merge—account for seven of the top 11 crashes. This is despite road signs, traffic lights and driver’s licence examinations. It seems the inevitable give and take of sharing the road can test drivers’ cognition and control, leading to collisions. If road users are distracted or inattentive, or they have a poor understanding of the road rules, the likelihood of crashes rises.
Nine of the 11 most common crash types— right through, cross traffic, dooring, from footway, emerging from driveway, left turn swipe, lane side swipe, right near and left near—are problems of one road user failing to acknowledge the rights of another.
While this can be a failure to pay attention, the Victorian Government is convinced that the mood of road users plays a major role.
In April this year, VicRoads launched the three-year road safety strategy, ‘Travel Happy: Share the Road’, which aims to bring a new mood to Victoria’s roads—a caring, sharing, and above all, happy disposition.
The campaign will focus on the impact that mood and driver behaviour can have on road safety. Road users are encouraged to be happy and smiling rather than snapping and snarling.
A recent survey of 1,000 road users undertaken by VicRoads found that:
- 70 per cent say the behaviour of others on the road impacts their mood;
- 46 per cent of frustrated or angry road users attribute their frustration to other road users;
- Only 47 per cent of road users feel happy on their daily commute.
Many road users are putting their urgency to get somewhere over their treatment of others, according to the campaign.
Minister for Roads and Road Safety, Luke Donnellan said: “More than five million Victorians use our roads every day, and we want to make sure they are doing so in the safest environment possible.”
“All road users, regardless of their mode of transport, will benefit by being aware of their behaviour on the road.”
“Road safety is everyone’s responsibility, and we want all road users to share the road and be mindful of others.”
The three-year campaign will be rolled out in four phases with each targeting individual road user groups.
Choose your route thoughtfully
Rather than using arterial routes, take parallel roads and back streets as they can be quieter and more pleasant to cycle along.
Doing a hook turn at an intersection is a safer way for bikes to turn right while keeping the way clear for other road users (unless posted otherwise).
Always check and scan the road so that you know what’s going on, particularly at intersections, roundabouts and when crossing slip lanes.
Use hand signals
To keep other road users in the know, use clear hand signals as often as possible to indicate your next move.
Obey the rules
As a fellow road user, bike riders are governed by the same rules as other vehicles, including stopping at all red traffic lights and stop signs.
Steer clear of distractions
Keep your mobile phone hands-free and cycle unplugged so that you’re aware of your surroundings.
You can often disappear in the blind spots of larger vehicles and are trickier to see at night. Smart positioning on the road, lights and reflective gear are a must.
Sharing is caring
On shared footpaths remember to give way to pedestrians. Let them know you’re there, slow down and leave them plenty of room.
A friendly wave is a simple and effective way to make connections on the road and say thanks.
For more info, visit www.travelhappy.vic.gov.au.
Dr Cameron Munro, a traffic engineering expert and principal with CDM Research, offers another perspective—one that focuses on the character of the roads we use.
“People become obsessed with the legal side of things,” he contends. “They say that if everyone read the road rules we wouldn’t have any of these problems. Well that’s not human behaviour. Humans are looking at the road and seeing the visual cues, the physical cues, the signs, to understand how they ought to behave.”
“A road that looks like a runway invites people to do 80km/h on it, though it’s a local road with a 50km/h limit,” he says. “We get a lot of these roads where the physical cues, road signs and road rules are inconsistent with each other.”
“At slower speed the vulnerable are more likely to be seen,” Munro argues. “Best practice is to reduce speed to 25km/h at least 40m before the intersection, depending on the intersection. This helps with the two important aspects: crash frequency and crash severity.”
Bike riders must slow down in a variety of different situations as well to minimise the risk of collision. However, slowing down bike riders is not enough to remove risk says Munro. He argues that, in a practical sense, you can’t go slow enough to avoid collisions altogether: “Take a busy road that’s renowned for dooring. If rode down that at 15km/h, you can be at the rear bumper of a car when the door opens and you would still not be able to respond in time. The human capacity and physics work against us.”
“Vigilance, trying to predict what’s going to occur, riding defensively is the prudent thing to do,” he continues. “But I would caveat that be saying that a lot of these things happen in such a short period of time that the notion that a good rider or a good driver can avoid collisions is somewhat moot. We have limitations on our human capacity to see something happening ahead of us, mentally respond and then physically react to brake or manoeuvre in time.”
To Munro the guiding principles in reducing road crashes come from a ‘safe system’ approach to traffic engineering, such as exist in Scandinavian countries and the Netherlands. In such a system, human failings are anticipated and solutions such as separated bike lanes are devised to mitigate the mistakes that people inevitably make.
“There are certain things riders can do to reduce the risks but they can by no means eliminate the risks,” explains Munro. “In order to eliminate them we need a complete transformation of the way in which the road system operates.”
This transformation needs to be built on good evidence, such as crash stats. Though the current system provides valuable data, it is estimated that 80% of crashes involving bike riders, including serious crashes, are unrecorded. VicRoads, the holder of Victorian crash stats, is reviewing the system with the aim of streamlining Police and hospital reporting into its records.
Munro also queries the validity of the single-DCA-code data as an adequate planning tool. “When you actually look at the police record with the description of what actually happened, quite often there are doorings that are happening in other codes, for instance ‘out of control on the carriageway’,” he suggests. “If you’re riding down the street and a courier opens his door, you don’t actually physically collide with the door but you go across the tram tracks and come off. That’s really common and that will be coded as ‘out of control on the carriageway’. Perhaps that should be coded both as a car dooring crash and as an ‘out of control on the carriageway’ crash.”
As a regular bike commuter, Munro is pragmatic: “The future is getting serious about speed limits and the safe system approach to designing our traffic systems. In the meantime, we need early lights for riders and physical separation.”
Safe system has now become the bedrock of road safety at the national and state level in Australia, but the influence of this new way of thinking has been slow to percolate.
The Top 11 risks to riders
This most commonly occurs when a motor-vehicle traffic is backed up but a bike rider is travelling unimpeded up the left. Adjacent to a side street the motor vehicle traffic leaves a gap and a driver coming from the other direction turns right through the gap to access the side street and fails to give way to the rider.
The solution is to be aware of gaps in backed up traffic, slow down well before any gap and watch for a driver turning through the gap. Often this situation is complicated by a driver in the stalled car just before the gap waving the right turning driver through, making them slightly less careful with their scanning.
Approximately 10% of right-through crashes involve the bike rider making the right turn and being hit by a car coming straight ahead. In this case the rider should not make the turn unless they are sure they can complete the turn in the space and time before the on-coming car. Better still use a hook turn. Bike riders can make hook turns at any intersection (unless a sign prohibits them).
This crash type captures any situation where the bike rider is travelling straight ahead and a driver travelling in a straight line across the line of the rider crashes into the rider. This could occur at traffic lights, a give way sign or any minor cross road where both parties are intending to travel straight ahead. The code does not capture the information of which party is at fault.
The solution here is to give way or stop at signals as required. If there is no give way sign or traffic lights, riders need to be very observant and ride defensively, which in this case means being ready to stop if there’s any risk of a collision.
There’s no ambiguity of who’s at fault here: anyone opening a vehicle door is legally obliged to check that they will not impede anyone coming past.
The best practice is to stay wide of the door zone (the space a door will occupy when opened). That might mean that you must ride in the main traffic lane. If you must ride in the door zone, scan the parked cars for signs that anyone is about to open a door. Be ready to stop. Do not swerve into the path of passing traffic.
Protected bike lanes are designed to move bike away from the door zone and will reduce this risk as more and more are built. Think about whether you can change your route to reduce your exposure to people opening vehicle doors.
This crash is most likely to occur as a result of riders, often children, on the footpath crossing a side street and a car fails to give way. Drivers must give way to cyclist riding on the footpath, the same as they must give way to pedestrians. All cyclists in QLD, TAS, NT and ACT can legally ride on the footpath and across Australia children under 12 years old and adults accompanying them can legally ride on the footpath.
Despite having right of way, riders need to act defensively in this situation and stop if a car does not look like it’s going to give way. Children riding with adults need to agree to stop at each street crossing and proceed only when given the go-ahead.
In another scenario, if a rider leaves the footpath mid-block to join the road and is hit by a car, it is the rider that has failed to give way. Note, there is a separate classification for a collision resulting from emerging from a driveway.
Emerging from driveway
This situation is another that is particularly a risk for footpath riders (see ‘From footway’ above). It most often involves a driver failing to give way to a passing bike rider as they emerge from a driveway.
Many driveways make it very hard or impossible for drivers to see passing traffic as they emerge. Riders need to assume that a vehicle could come out of any driveway they pass and be ready to stop. Ringing your bell before crossing the driveway can help as well.
In approximately 12% of instances of this crash type, it is the bike rider emerging from the driveway that fails to give way to passing traffic.
Out of control
This classification is possibly a catch-all for a lot of different scenarios but it most likely describes a situation where the bike rider has crashed and no other road user is involved. This could be due to a slippery, rough or pot-holed road surface; tram or train tracks; poor control by the rider; inattention by the rider; alcohol or drug impairment; or a variety of other factors. However, it is possible that the rider could lose control while avoiding a dooring; a vehicle that has failed to give way; or some action by a second party.
Left turn side swipe
Bike riders are allowed to overtake other vehicles on the left but this often causes confusion at intersections. The Australian Road Rules state, “The rider of a bicycle must not ride past, or overtake, to the left of a vehicle that is turning left and is giving a left change of direction signal.”
In practice, who gives way to who can be challenging to determine and negotiate. If a rider is level with the driver of a motor vehicle, the driver will usually let the rider pass before turning. Riders must be very wary and ready to stop if the driver does not give way though. Make sure you communicate that you are stopping to the riders behind you, so they don’t run into you.
When you’re behind level with the driver and they are ready to turn and indicating, you should give way and let the vehicle turn in front of you.
Lane side swipe
When a driver fails to leave enough room when passing and collides with the rider it is recorded as a ‘Lane side swipe’.
While mostly out of the rider’s control, the best management of this risk is with lane position. For instance, when the space is too tight for a vehicle and bike to travel side-by-side, the rider must move out and occupy the whole lane until there is room again for a vehicle to pass. This is a recommended strategy for roundabouts, for instance, and it applies to all situations where lanes are narrow.
Being this assertive is difficult for some riders, however, particularly for riders with a slower average speed and for women, who tend to receive more aggression from drivers. An alternative is to pull over to the footpath and walk the bike until the riding conditions are less challenging.
At number nine, and representing 4.9% of all crashes involving cyclists in this data set, comes the dreaded rear ender. It’s understandable that this situation is a bogey in bikers minds—it’s natural to be scared of the unseen and unknown. This crash occurs most often on rural, high-speed roads when driver distraction and inattention have more devastating effects. Often the perpetrator claims to have been temporarily unable to see the rider.
Some riders favour a powerful rear light as an aid to this situation—some lights have a daytime setting, which is an ultra-bright flashing mode. Research into distracted driving suggests this technique may be limited in effect. A good strategy is to ride on the shoulder of the road, providing there is a shoulder and it is in a rideable condition.
Here’s another instance of intersection confusion. There are two main scenarios where a bike rider can come unstuck.
In the first, it is the driver that has to give way but does not allow enough time for rider to complete the right turn. In the second, the rider has to give way but misjudges the opportunity to turn right and rides into the path of traffic. Both serve to demonstrate that we all need to slow down a little and give our fellow road users the time they need.
This particularly occurs where drivers have a slip-lane to turn left. The extra speed allowed by the wide arc of the slip-lane discourages deceleration and reduces the time and angle for adequate scanning. So even though the vehicle emerging from the slip-lane must give way, they don’t in this case and hit the bike rider going past.
The only thing the rider can do is scan carefully, ride defensively and be ready to stop to avoid a collision.
Another scenario leading to this crash type is where a rider fails to give way when turning left. The solution is not to turn left when a vehicle is passing but wait until it has gone past and the way is entirely clear.
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